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September 3, 2017 No.
7077

Iraqi PM Protests Hizbullah-ISIS Deal, Ignites Controversy Within Resistance Camp

On August 19, 2017, the Lebanese army launched an attack to seize the area between the northern Beqa Valley and the Syrian border (henceforth the Lebanese Jaroud) from the control of the Islamic State (ISIS), while the Syrian army and Hizbullah launched an attack on ISIS on the other side of the Syrian border (in the Syrian Jaroud).

Several days after the beginning of the fighting, ISIS expressed willingness to disclose information about the fate of nine Lebanese soldiers who had been kidnapped by the organization in its August 2013 raid on the border town of Arsal. This expression of willingness led to a negotiation between Hizbullah and ISIS, with the consent of the Syrian regime, which yielded a deal between the sides. As part of this deal the fighting was halted, and ISIS released a Hizbullah fighter it had captured as well as the bodies of three other Hizbullah fighters. In addition, it disclosed information about the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers, who turned out to have been killed. In return, Hizbullah and the Syrian army granted the surviving ISIS fighters and their families, who were concentrated in a relatively small part of the Jaroud region on either side of the Syria-Lebanon border, safe passage to the area of Deir Al-Zor, near the border between Syria and Iraq. According to Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, there were 670 evacuees, 331 of them civilians, and the combatants were allowed to keep their personal weapons only.[1]It should be noted that, according to the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal daily, one of the bodies handed over by ISIS as part of this deal was of a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The international coalition fighting ISIS rejected the deal. Brett McGurk, the U.S.'s representative to the international coalition, tweeted that "terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across Syria to the Iraqi border without Iraq's consent."[2] On August 30, coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon said that coalition forces had bombed the vehicles carrying the ISIS fighters and that the strike had stopped the convoy before it reached the Deir al-Zor province.[3]

In an announcement it released on September 2, 2017, Hizbullah accused the U.S. that its planes were preventing the busses carrying the ISIS fighters and their families from reaching Deir Al-Zor and even from accessing humanitarian aid, which will lead to their certain death. The announcement stressed that on the busses are children, elderly people and pregnant women, and that the U.S. will be fully responsible if they die, either as a result of airstrikes or as a result of the dangerous conditions in which they are held. It called on the international community to intervene to prevent a brutal massacre, and also emphasized that Syria and Hizbullah have met all their commitments in the agreement with ISIS.[4]


The convoy carrying the ISIS fighters and their families; behind is a Syrian army tank (image: alalam.ir, August 30, 2017)

Hizbullah's deal with ISIS sparked intense outrage, especially in Iraq from officials across the political spectrum, who expressed fear that it would bring ISIS fighters close to the Iraqi border. Criticism was heard even from Shi'ite officials, who are partners of Hizbullah and the Syrian regime in their war against ISIS, including from the Iraqi Prime Minister and from Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) officials, who were surprised by the deal. Conversely, former Iraqi prime minster Nouri Al-Maliki defended Hizbullah's move, and warned of criticism that would split the resistance camp. He said that similar deals had been struck in Iraq when circumstances warranted this. PMU Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis sent a letter of support to Nasrallah, which concluded with the words, "O master of the resistance, we all stand with you."

To quell the criticism from his natural allies in the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian camp, Nasrallah launched a campaign to explain and justify the deal. In a televised speech he delivered on August 28, 2017, he said that the deal had been necessary in order to obtain information from ISIS about the fate of Lebanese soldiers who had been kidnapped by the organization, and that it had also prevented further casualties among civilians and among the Lebanese and Syrian armies and Hizbullah. In a special message to the Iraqi people, he explained that had made the deal with the consent of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and that he, Nasrallah, must not be accused of betraying anyone. He added that the deal involved the transfer of ISIS fighters from one part of Syria to another, not from Lebanon to Iraq. In an August 31 speech in Baalbek he explained that the Syrian leadership had agreed to Hizbullah's deal with ISIS in order to help Lebanon resolve the crisis of the kidnapped soldiers, not for the sake of Syria itself.

This report reviews the furor within the resistance camp following Hizbullah's deal with ISIS.


ISIS fighters en route to Deir Al-Zor (image: almodon.com, August 30, 2017)

Intense Criticism In Iraq: The Hizbullah Deal Endangers Iraq's Security

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-'Abadi denounced the deal between the Lebanese Hizbullah and ISIS, as part of which ISIS fighters were bused to the Syria-Iraq border, saying: "We must not give terror a chance anywhere. Transferring terrorists to the Syria-Iraq border threatens our people... The ISIS organization is [now] drawing its last gasps, and it is a mistake to give it a chance to breathe."[5]

Iraqi MP 'Ali Al-Badiri, of the Shi'ite State of Law Coalition, accused the Iraqi and Syrian governments of "a conspiracy against the Iraqi people and the PMU," given their silence in the face of this deal, and told Hizbullah: "The blood of our young people and nation and of the PMU [fighters] is no cheaper than Lebanese blood." He added: "Everyone who was involved in this deal on behalf of Hizbullah, the Syrian government, the Iraqi government or the international coalition bears full responsibility for any new bloodshed that will ensue in the conflict with ISIS in these areas." He asked: "Where are the planes of the international coalition? Why aren't they attacking these terrorist convoys? How could the two sides sign an agreement whose victims will be young Iraqis?"[6]

The Iraqi prime minister's spokesman Sa'd Al-Hadithi told the Al-Furat news agency that "the Iraqi government had no [prior] knowledge about this deal and rejects it, because it threatens Iraq's security. There is also principled opposition to agreements and understandings with terrorists... The only way to deal with these organizations is by drawing the noose tighter around their necks and eliminating them, not by making deals [with them]." He added: "It is inconceivable that a country in conflict with a certain side should reach understandings or make deals that can harm the other states in the region..."[7]

PMU officials: We Oppose Any Threat To Iraq's National Security

Mahmoud Al-Rabi'i, the spokesman for the political bureau of the 'Asaib Al-Haqq militia, said that the PMU leadership will meet to discuss this matter, and protested the deal, saying: "The Syrian government ordered to bus the ISIS fighters to the border in the Al-Bukamal area, which is held by the terrorist organization [ISIS]... The PMU opposes any threat to the security of the state [of Iraq]... Syria and Iraq are both part of the four-country coalition with Iran and Russia, so it is inconceivable that the Syrian government should take any step on its border with Iraq without coordinating with the Iraqi government."[8]

PMU spokesman Ahmad Al-Asadi told the Iraqi news website Al-Masalah that the Iraqi government had not been informed in advance about 700 ISIS fighters being bussed to Al-Bukamal, and dismissed as "nonsense" reports that the move had been coordinated with Baghdad. However, he stressed that this was an internal Syrian matter and clarified that the borders between Iraq and Syria would soon be sealed off completely to prevent the infiltration of terrorists from Syria into Iraq. He also mentioned that Syria and Iraq have an agreement, that has already been implemented in practice, whereby Iraq is entitled to attack terrorist targets in Syria if they constitute a threat to its security.[9]

Nasrallah In Response To The Criticism: We Did Not Betray Anyone, The Deal Was Necessary

In an August 28, 2017 televised interview to mark the liberation of the Jaroud region from ISIS, Nasrallah said: "Everyone agrees that had we liberated this Lebanese territory and Syrian territory... without uncovering the fate of [the kidnapped Lebanese] soldiers this would have been a defective and relative victory... We had two options: [we could achieve] a final and decisive military victory, but [then] one, two or three [ISIS fighters] who knew the whereabouts of the Lebanese soldiers may have been killed in battle. That would have been the end, and then what would we have done? The affair would have forever remained [unresolved]. No one – not the army, not the government, not the Lebanese state, and not the soldiers' families – would have been able to do anything, and that would have been a genuine debacle. The second option was to exert military pressure while pushing the negotiating to its conclusion to achieve this result. Had we chosen the first solution, then someone who knew the whereabouts of the soldiers may have been killed. Second, many civilians, including women and children, would have been killed, because they were with [the ISIS fighters], and that would have caused an outcry... Third, the Lebanese army, the Syrian army and the resistance would have sustained additional casualties... Our religion, our ethics and our Quran say, 'honor agreements'... We are not traitors and we stab no one in the back. We do not scheme or play tricks on anyone...We made an agreement. The other side met its commitments. We [too] must honor our commitments."[10]

Nasrallah In Message To Iraqi People: Nothing Will Ever Undermine The Brotherhood Among Us; We Are Proud Of Our Iraqi Brothers-In-Arms

In response to the criticism, on August 30, Nasrallah also released a message to the Iraqi people, in which he wrote: "Today I became aware that some senior [officials] among our Iraqi brothers are wondering about the negotiation process that took place in the Syrian Al-Qalamoun [region]. I also read some analyses and opinions on this matter. Therefore, out of brotherhood and love I wish to respond as follows:

"1. The agreement involves transferring some ISIS fighters and their families from [one] Syrian territory to [another], namely from the Western Al-Qalamoun [region] in Syria to Deir Al-Zor in Syria, not from Lebanese territory into Iraqi territory. Most of the [ISIS] fighters in Syria's Western Al-Qalamoun [area] were Syrian, and only a few of [these Syrian fighters] still remained in Lebanese territory.

"2. The number of people transferred was not large: 310 defeated, broken and cowed combatants who lack the will to fight and will not in any way tip the balance of the battle in the Deir Al-Zor area, where tens of thousands of [ISIS] fighters are present [in any case].

"3. The area to which they were transferred is the battlefront in the Syrian desert, where, as everyone knows, the Syrian army and its allies have been waging a determined battle for months now. The spearhead of the fight against ISIS in the Syrian desert was and remains Hizbullah, which has sacrificed many martyrs in that area. So we transferred these defeated combatants from [one] front where we are fighting to [another] front where we are fighting.

"4. We were facing a national public and humanitarian problem in Lebanon, involving the Lebanese soldiers who were kidnapped by ISIS several years ago. There was a consensus in Lebanon regarding the need to expose their fate, and liberate them if they are still alive or return their bodies if they have been martyred. Ultimately, the only way [to achieve this] was to negotiate with these [ISIS] fighters in order to resolve this national humanitarian issue. ISIS refused to reveal their fate, [but] after a very fierce battle on both sides of the Lebanon-Syria border, and after ISIS lost most of its fighters and most of the territory it held, it gave in. The option of a comprehensive and decisive military outcome was easily within reach, but [had we pursued this option] we would have missed the opportunity to [resolve] the question of the Lebanese soldiers' fate.

"5. I wish to remind our dear [Iraqi] brothers that Hizbullah entered with all its might into the battlefronts alongside the Syrian army, [and has been fighting] the takfiri organizations since the beginning of the war. It fought on several fronts alongside the Syrian army, which constantly [worked to] destroy the capabilities of these takfiri terrorists and never pursued a strategy of [merely] halting [their advance]. The goal shared by all of us is to defeat these takfiris by fighting them. As for tactics, the commanders on each arena know best how to achieve victory.

"6. Hizbullah was never negligent and fought ISIS everywhere it went and wherever there was need [to fight it]. You know this very well. It is not possible to suspect Hizbullah's intentions or motivations, or its courage and credibility, especially in this war. Nor is it possible to point accusing fingers at or to doubt the Syrian leadership, for this agreement was made by Hizbullah with the consent of the Syrian leadership, whose army is currently fighting ISIS on many fronts... and which has sustained a large number of casualties.

"7. We are proud of our brothers, the Iraqi mujahideen, the heroic Iraqi resistance factions, who rushed to the Syrian arena in the very first days of the Syria war, and who saw ahead very clearly when others were mired in irrelevant arguments.[11] We have fought with them, shoulder to shoulder, and our blood has mingled with theirs in many battle arenas. These Iraqi heroes are still in the trenches, fighting and changing the balance [of power]. We are proud of them and appreciate their constant presence and the great sacrifices they have made defending the ummah and its holy places. We thank them for this.

"Finally, I congratulate all Iraqis on their great victories, from Mosul to Tel 'Afar, which they have achieved by means of their blessed blood, their heroic armed forces and their blessed PMU. I tell them that our battle is one and our destiny is one. Our victory over the takfiri terrorists and their allies, and over the regional and international forces that support them, will be a historic one, and nothing will ever undermine the brotherhood among us."[12]

Nasrallah In Baalbek Speech: I Asked Assad To Approve The Negotiation With ISIS, For Lebanon's Sake

In an August 31, 2017 speech he delivered in Baalbek, Lebanon, Nasrallah said: "Decency dictates that we greatly appreciate the sacrifices made by the Syrian army from the beginning until the end [of the battle against ISIS in the Jaroud area]. Many of its [soldiers] have been killed or injured on this soil whose liberation we are now celebrating, especially in the last two battles. More accurately, they fought for our sake, for the sake of Lebanon and at our behest.

"The truth is that the liberation of Jaroud Falita, Jaroud Al-Jarajir and Qara was not a top priority for the Syrian army right now. [The Syrian army] is involved in war across the Syrian homeland, and it is giving priority to battles in other areas. We went to the Syrian leadership and told them: 'We want you to help us. We must put an end to the current situation in these Jaroud [areas] and on that border, because there is a threat there and [a war of] attrition, etc., etc., etc.' And they agreed... We told them we are facing a national humanitarian problem and that there is a consensus in Lebanon [that it must be addressed]. 'We hope you can help us by rendering [us] this service,' [we said]. 'We cannot discover the fate of the kidnapped Lebanese soldiers without making this deal.'

"We tried [to discover the soldiers' fate]. In fact, I went to President Assad, I went to Syria. I went to him and said to him: 'Mr. President... The [Lebanese] General Security [Directorate] has its sources. We summoned them, they investigated but did not find a thing. Sources in [Lebanon's] Military Intelligence [also] investigated and did not find a thing. Hizbullah has sources [too]; we investigated and did not find a thing. We have people who surrendered [to us]. We summoned them and investigated and did not find a thing. If this battle ends without the fate of the Lebanese soldiers becoming known, it will create a big humanitarian crisis in this country [Lebanon], so we want [you to do us] this service.'

"He said, 'It will be embarrassing for me, but all right, no problem.' I replied, 'Ok, how shall we conduct the negotiation [with ISIS]?' He said, 'If the Lebanese government wants to negotiate, it must submit an official request [to the Syrian regime]. That is what I spoke about with [Assad] and they made a big fuss about it [in Lebanon]. [Assad said,] 'If you people in Hizbullah want to negotiate, I have no problem [with that].' We went and conducted a negotiation [with ISIS], and concluded it. The Syrian leadership accepted this embarrassing reality. I want to tell you today: The Syrian leadership accepted this embarrassing reality for Lebanon's sake, not Syria's... In any case, on the occasion of the second liberation holiday, we thank the Syrian leadership, led by President Bashar Al-Assad, and all our Syrian brethren, and especially the Syrian army and its various forces, for their genuine and essential contribution to this liberation."[13]

Nouri Al-Maliki: Nasrallah Made The Right Decision; The Deal Was Part Of His Battle Strategy Against Terrorism

Some in Iraq supported the deal struck by Hizbullah and defended Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah, especially after the publication of Nasrallah's message to the Iraqi people. Among the supporters was former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who said that "transferring some fighters of the terrorist ISIS [organization] to Deir Al-Zor is part of the battle strategy against the forces of terrorism," and that "each battle involves different circumstances and means of achieving victory." He defended Nasrallah, saying that he had "taken the right decision" and that his critics were speaking out of ignorance and resentment. He claimed that, during the battle for Tel 'Afar in Iraq, hundreds of ISIS fighters withdrew from the city after surrendering their weapons to the Peshmerga, and that the city was liberated by means of an agreement, not by the force of arms. He wondered why this was legitimate in Iraq but not in Syria, and warned against "falling for attempts to do harm and sow doubts in order to divide the ranks of the front that opposes terrorism."[14]

Head Of Shi'ite Iraqi Militia: Criticism Of Nasrallah Is Hypocrisy Stemming From Envy

Qais Al-Khaz'ali, head of the Shi'ite Iraqi militia 'Asaib Ahl Al-Haqq, called the criticism of Nasrallah "political exaggeration and hypocrisy" stemming from "a sudden [bout of] envy." He added that the deal would "probably have no impact on the complicated political and social situation inside Iraq..., since 300 defeated ISIS fighters would not affect the balance of power."[15]

PMU Deputy Chairman In Letter To Nasrallah: "We All Stand With You"

Amid reports of criticism in Iraq of the deal between ISIS and Hizbullah, PMU Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis hastened to send Nasrallah a letter of support, a copy of which was posted on the website of Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV. In the letter Al-Muhandis praised Nasrallah effusively, writing, inter alia: "To the master of the resistance and its animating spirit… A resistance that that is not led by you... is inconsequential, and a resistance where you do not serve as its messenger, its source and its spearhead is valueless. It is from you that we learned persistence, and it is from the Hizbullah martyrs on Iraq's soil [that we learned] how to embrace the land perfumed by the value of jointly[-shed] blood. You and we are proceeding as one on Allah's great path in the war against the barricades of extremism, the pulpits of those preaching religious radicalism, and the trenches of Zionism. Your resistance-fighting people, your followers, your supportive public, your admirers [all] follow your path along a route that no border confines and no mongers of false rumors [an allusion to reports on disputes between Iraq and Nasrallah] can hinder.

Sir, you were and will remain a paragon of glory of the vigilant resistance project, and we were, are and will remain with you in that project that extends from heaven to earth. O master of the resistance, we all stand with you!"[16]


Al-Muhandis's letter to Nasrallah (image: almanar.com.lb, August 31, 2017)

 

 


[1] Almanar.com.lb, August 29, 2017.

[2] Twitter.com/brett_mcgurk, August 30, 2017.

[3] The New York Times (U.S.), August 30, 2017.

[4] Alnour.com.lb, September 2, 2017.

[5] Alarabiya.net, August 29, 2017. Iraq's Speaker of Parliament Salim Al-Jabouri, a Sunni, said that "the Iraqi government opposes any agreement that restores ISIS to Iraq or brings its closer to its border, because that brings us back to square one." Adding that Iraq will not pay the cost of agreements harmful to its security and stability, he urged the government to take all necessary measures to cope with the repercussions of this deal and called upon the parliament's security committee to convene an urgent session on the matter. The Presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government likewise issued an announcement criticizing the deal. It expressed fear that the "2014 scenario," of ISIS penetration from Syria into Iraq, would repeat itself, and pledged to fully cooperate with the Iraqi army in any possible situation. Almodon.com, August 30, 2017.

[6] Alsumaria.tv, August 29, 2017.

[7] Aforatnews.com, August 29, 2017.

[8] Aljournal.com, August 29, 2017.

[9] Almasalah.com, August 30, 2017.

[10] Almanar.com.lb, August 29, 2017.

[11] Nasrallah uses the phrase "Byzantine arguments," meaning preoccupation with meaningless and irrelevant matters in a time of great danger. This refers to the Byzantine Senate's preoccupation with arcane questions such as the gender of angels or the dimensions of the devil while Sultan Mehmed II was besieging Constantinople and the empire was on the brink of collapse.

[12] Almanar.com.lb, August 30, 2017.

[13] Almanar.com.ib, August 31, 2017.

[14] Alsumaria.tv, August 30, 2017.

[15] Sotaliraq.com, September 1, 2017.

[16] Almanar.com.lb, August 31, 2017.